Rising from the Plains

by John McPhee
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Rising from the Plains

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2056

There is “more than a little of the humanities” in the subject of geology, John McPhee advises, and it is his considerable achievement in Rising from the Plains and its predecessors, Basin and Range (1981), and In Suspect Terrain (1983), to bring that subject with its elements of the human, as well as its scientific complexity, into the realm of the common reader. One of America’s foremost narrative essayists, McPhee skillfully employs the novelistic techniques of character analysis and dramatic action to explore his subjects, which are often individuals involved in their work. Seeking to determine the larger significance of these individuals, he usually ascertains how they are involved, at least indirectly, in social issues, such as the effects of industrial development on the environment. These characteristics made his Coming into the Country (1977), a book on Alaska and Alaskans, a modern classic.

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For this series on geology and geologists, McPhee’s lifelong interest in the subject provides him with the technical background to integrate earth science writing with his customary social analysis and character profiles. The book’s focus is the effects of various aspects of geology on man: on his economic possibilities; on his health; and, through the surface topology of the physical landscape, on his spiritual nature. To accomplish this last element—the most elusive, and yet aesthetically the most challenging—requires the delicate touch of the poet, and McPhee possesses that touch.

Certainly one element of the humanities in the subject of geology is man, the geologist; in this volume, the geologist whom McPhee portrays is David Love, who was born in the Wind River Basin in central Wyoming in 1913 and who grew up on an isolated ranch there. Considered “the grand old man of Rocky Mountain geology,” Love is supervisor of the United States Geological Survey’s environmental branch in Laramie. Section after section of the book opens with author McPhee talking with Love as he drives his Bronco along the vast open stretches of Wyoming’s Interstate 80. Love’s comments on the physical landscape provide McPhee an approach to presenting the more technical geological detail. Occasionally, the men stop along the interstate to explore the rock in roadcuts. (For the geologist, this period of great road building is a “godsend”; otherwise, streambeds are about the only place with exposed natural layers of rock.) The discussions on specific rock cuts and the geologies that they represent serve as portals to long digressions on the geological history of the major areas of Wyoming. McPhee always presents his material so that it has meaning for the reader; he links specific detail—the color of a rock, the shape of a mountain, the form of a valley—to general theory in an attempt to suggest the geological history of the state. “Wyoming,” McPhee declares, “suggests with emphasis the page-one principle of reading in rock the record of the earth.” This record shows that surface appearances are constantly changing, that the earth itself “grows, shrinks, compresses, spreads, disintegrates and disappears.” Since every scene is temporary and is composed of fragments from other previous scenes, one must understand the series of previous scenes to comprehend fully the present landscape. Geology places strong demands on the imagination, which is one of its central humanistic aspects.

The geological history of Wyoming is linked to the geological history of the planet. One idea progresses to another as McPhee works toward composing what geologists term “the Big Picture”—an account of the geological formation of Earth—in the reader’s mind. Such an attempt is admirable, but for it to be successful, the common reader must struggle through some geological terms. That reader can profitably make his way through Rising from the Plains without reading Basin and Range, but it would be to his advantage to read first the initial book of the series. For in that volume McPhee relates the general history of geology, tracing the development of the science from its inception through the great breakthroughs in geophysics and plate theory of the 1957-1967 decade. In this general narrative, the reader develops a sense of the formation of the specific terms—the system, period, stage and age names—and thus overcomes the barrier in reading about geology. Once that barrier is overcome, the subsequent technical information falls into place as it is presented.

Fortunately, the common reader will not need to overcome any geological material to enjoy one of the central aspects of Rising from the Plains: the social and familial history of the Love Ranch and the Wind River Basin area, as developed from the diary of Miss Ethel Waxham, David Love’s mother. The narrative follows her arrival in Wyoming as the new schoolteacher in the autumn of 1905, direct from Wellesley College with her Phi Beta Kappa key hanging from a chain around her neck. Her comments on the local ranchers and their way of life are often directly quoted from the diary; these passages illustrate the vitality of her thought, the immediacy of her situation. Her schoolroom is a log cabin, fourteen by eighteen feet, with eight desks. Some of the students are large boys, bigger than she; after their morning rides of several miles, they take off their spurs and leather chaps before sitting down to their desks and pencils.

McPhee creates a feeling for frontier life by presenting such small detail. In a short while, Ethel finds herself attracting the attention of one of the more successful ranchers, John Love, a thirty-five-year-old Scot who lives sixty miles away. He makes the eleven-hour ride, each way, to see her often. Fifteen years previously, in 1891 when the state of Wyoming was less than a year old, John Love walked two hundred miles into the state without owning an acre; in time he became a self-made man. When he courts Ethel, he is what she terms a “muttonaire,” a man who owns several thousand sheep, as well as a couple hundred head of cattle, on the thousand square miles of land he controls—an area equal to 1 percent of the entire state. For five years, John Love pursues Ethel, following her to Colorado and Wisconsin before finally bringing her back in a sheep wagon to his ranch.

Much of the best writing of the book concerns David’s experiences as a child. John and Ethel Love rear three children—David included—on the ranch, which is located on Muskrat Creek, near the southern tip of the Bighorn Mountains. The family thrives on the hardships of ranch life, growing in spirit and stature with the new country. From describing exciting events involving David’s relationship to the cowboys who work the ranch, to a lazy summer afternoon, to a study session with his mother—basically, she educated the children—McPhee re-creates the environment that formed the man.

One aspect of that environment is the physical landscape, the rock and terrain, and its specifics are important to the kind of geologist Love is, for, as McPhee relates, “Geologists tend to have been strongly influenced by the rocks among which they grew up.” Love began to form his sense of physical rock as a youngster, riding out on the ranch to the water holes in his daily work with the cattle. That sense of rock, however, is only one part of the landscape which McPhee portrays. It is a rugged and isolated terrain with a deep beauty, a landscape that generates a certain kind of spiritual experience which is characterized by an “aesthetic silence”—a “silence equal to the winter Yukon.” In describing this kind of experience, McPhee becomes the poet, generating a mood from his specific images that conveys the essence of the land.

It is as a result of this background that the reader can understand David Love, the geologist, and his opinions about the land. McPhee wishes the reader to see as David Love sees, to present the landscape through his eyes, and his vision is complex. On the one hand, he is an employee of the government, concerned with economic geology—how the science can benefit the society. Love’s work as a geologist has been responsible for a good amount of the oil drilling in the state, and it was his fieldwork that opened the way for uranium exploration. On the other hand, Love is a man whose emotional roots go deep into the land, with his family ranch background forming his great love for the natural landscape. So Love embodies the paradox of being a working geologist, a man who supplies companies with the kind of information essential to mining development, and a man equally committed to preserving the natural environment of the state. Often, these separate values can be accommodated. In commenting on the drilling rigs and pump jacks of one of the most productive oil fields along Interstate 80, Love states that this machinery is not damaging the landscape very much. “It isn’t all or nothing,” he declares. “It doesn’t have to be.” At other times, however, those values are in direct conflict: In commenting on himself as the scientist who discovered oil in the Yellowstone Gorge, he remarks, “My great-uncle John Muir founded the Sierra Club, and here I am, being a traitor.”

McPhee explores this man’s inner conflict with an eye toward its larger significance; for David Love’s paradox is the larger paradox of society. On the one hand, society needs the natural resources found so abundantly in Wyoming to better life for its people, and on the other, society needs to preserve the natural environment for the health—both physical and mental—of those same people.

It is through Love, and his concern about the relationship between geology and health, that McPhee examines a number of problems man has made for himself through development. One is associated with the Jim Bridger power plant; the huge power plant seems necessary for the region’s development, but the fluorine emissions might well pollute the water table in ten or fifteen years, causing fluorosis. Another problem is the long-term effects of various dams. Created by a dam, the Flaming Gorge reservoir dissolves natural trona along its banks under certain conditions so that Lake Powell and Lake Mead, reservoirs downstream, turn into chemical lakes, which in turn affects the farmers in Mexico, causing salination in their irrigation water and ruining the land. Moreover, the Black Fork River dam caused alkali to spread over farmland in southwestern Wyoming through the Lyman irrigation project, so that many farms had to be abandoned. Even solutions to problems, in turn, cause problems: One solution to the problems of power plants and dams has been geothermal energy, but Love has raised the possibility that leaching from radioactive sources in certain areas can pollute geothermal wells. The radium pollution is so severe in one area that when the bodies of gophers, mice, and squirrels are placed on photographic paper, they take their own pictures. When such water is released into rivers, the normal procedure, it can carry radioactivity as far as a thousand miles downstream.

So as McPhee illustrates, the problems are not simple. In Love, McPhee renders a man who has the kind of insight to tackle such problems. McPhee’s accomplishment in this book is not only to present the geology of the state of Wyoming but also the spiritual dimension of a person. Thus, in its largest sense, the book is a tribute to the man David Love as well as to his science.

In the closing scene, McPhee accompanies Love back to his family ranch house, which has been vacant for nearly forty years, the land leased to a cattle company. Within twelve miles of the house are the Gas Hills, where fifty open pit uranium mines—each roughly a half mile in diameter and five hundred feet deep—have made an “unearthly mess.” Love is troubled by the scene. “At places like this,” he declares, “we thought we were doing a great service to the nation. In hindsight, we do not know if we were performing a service or a disservice.” The question he voices, McPhee suggests, is the question society must ask itself. It is a tough question, but, then, ultimately, McPhee has gained his stature as a writer by formulating just such tough questions and in just this narrative manner.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

Blair and Ketchum’s Country Journal. XIII, August, 1986, p. 16.

Booklist. LXXXII, August, 1986, p. 1635.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, August 15, 1986, p. 1274.

Library Journal. CXI, October 1, 1986, p. 103.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 9, 1986, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, November 23, 1986, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, August 15, 1986, p. 62.

USA Today. November 21, 1986, V, p. 40.

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